Life or Death.


When Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, a eunuch who was in the king’s house, heard that they had put Jeremiah into the cistern—the king was sitting in the Benjamin Gate—Ebed-melech went from the king’s house and said to the king, “My lord the king, these men have done evil in all that they did to Jeremiah the prophet by casting him into the cistern, and he will die there of hunger, for there is no bread left in the city.” Then the king commanded Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, “Take thirty men with you from here, and lift Jeremiah the prophet out of the cistern before he dies.” So Ebed-melech took the men with him and went to the house of the king, to a wardrobe in the storehouse, and took from there old rags and worn-out clothes, which he let down to Jeremiah in the cistern by ropes. Then Ebed-melech the Ethiopian said to Jeremiah, “Put the rags and clothes between your armpits and the ropes.” Jeremiah did so. Then they drew Jeremiah up with ropes and lifted him out of the cistern. And Jeremiah remained in the court of the guard.

King Zedekiah sent for Jeremiah the prophet and received him at the third entrance of the temple of the Lord. The king said to Jeremiah, “I will ask you a question; hide nothing from me.” Jeremiah said to Zedekiah, “If I tell you, will you not surely put me to death? And if I give you counsel, you will not listen to me.” Then King Zedekiah swore secretly to Jeremiah, “As the Lord lives, who made our souls, I will not put you to death or deliver you into the hand of these men who seek your life.”

Then Jeremiah said to Zedekiah, “Thus says the Lord, the God of hosts, the God of Israel: If you will surrender to the officials of the king of Babylon, then your life shall be spared, and this city shall not be burned with fire, and you and your house shall live. But if you do not surrender to the officials of the king of Babylon, then this city shall be given into the hand of the Chaldeans, and they shall burn it with fire, and you shall not escape from their hand.” King Zedekiah said to Jeremiah, “I am afraid of the Judeans who have deserted to the Chaldeans, lest I be handed over to them and they deal cruelly with me.” Jeremiah said, “You shall not be given to them. Obey now the voice of the Lord in what I say to you, and it shall be well with you, and your life shall be spared.” Jeremiah 38:7-20 ESV

Jeremiah is sunk in the mud at the bottom of an empty cistern. He had been placed there by a group of officials from Zedekiah’s court who had become fed up with his constant calls for the people of Judah to surrender to the Babylonians or die. What is interesting in this story is the pathetic lack of leadership on the part of Zedekiah. When his court officials had shown up demanding that he do something about Jeremiah, he had simply responded, ““Do as you like. I can’t stop you” (Jeremiah 38:5 NLT). Now, another one of his court officials appears before him, pleading that he spare the life of Jeremiah, who will surely die if the king doesn’t intervene. Once again, Zedekiah responds, “Take thirty of my men with you, and pull Jeremiah out of the cistern before he dies” (Jeremiah 38:9 NLT). It would seem that Zedekiah’s leadership abilities were directly effected by whoever was in his presence at the time. His decision to release Jeremiah was not because he had any kind of respect or love for the man. He simply didn’t know what to do. He was frustrated and scared. His capital was surrounded by Babylonian troops who had been laying siege to the city for years now. Yes, they had recently left in order to deal with the Egyptians, but they would be back. He knew this situation was far from over. And he also knew that Jeremiah was causing all kinds of trouble in the city because of his constant prophesying about the coming fall of Judah. Zedekiah was a man without a clue as to what to do. He just wanted it all to go away. He wanted Jeremiah to tell him some good news. So, once the prophet had been released, Zedekiah sent for him.

King Zedekiah sent for Jeremiah the prophet and received him at the third entrance of the temple of the Lord. – Jeremiah 38:14 ESV

The specific reference to “the third entrance of the temple” was probably intended to convey that this was a secret meeting. Zedekiah didn’t want his other court officials to know he had released Jeremiah or that he was having a meeting with him. But once Jeremiah arrived, Zedekiah stated his intent:

“I want to ask you something,” the king said. “And don’t try to hide the truth.” – Jeremiah 38:14 NLT

I find this statement from the king a bit interesting. Since when had Jeremiah ever NOT told the truth or attempted to hide anything from the king? He wasn’t in the habit of sugarcoating anything and he wasn’t the kind of man who tended to hide the truth. So, Jeremiah responded, “If I tell you the truth, you will kill me. And if I give you advice, you won’t listen to me anyway” (Jeremiah 38:15 NLT). Jeremiah knew the king well. He was well aware that what Zedekiah wanted to hear from him was not the truth, but a message that painted the future of Judah and his kingdom in a positive light. He wanted good news. And Zedekiah made a promise to Jeremiah that he wouldn’t kill him or turn him back over to the court officials. He just needed answers and, preferably, positive ones. Jeremiah anticipated what it was that Zedekiah was going to ask him, so before the king could pose his question, he said:

“This is what the Lord God of Heaven’s Armies, the God of Israel, says: ‘If you surrender to the Babylonian officers, you and your family will live, and the city will not be burned down. But if you refuse to surrender, you will not escape! This city will be handed over to the Babylonians, and they will burn it to the ground.’” – Jeremiah 38:17-18 NLT

Same song, second verse. Actually, it was the first verse all over again. Jeremiah simply picked up where he had left off before he had been thrown in the cistern. His time in the mud at the bottom of the cistern had not changed his mind or convinced him to stop delivering the message God had given him. Yes, he was standing before the most powerful man in the kingdom, who had full authority to spare him or demand  his death, but Jeremiah answered to a great authority: God Almighty. So, he told Zedekiah what God had said, not what the king wanted to hear. He spoke the truth. Even if it meant he would have to die for doing so.

And Zedekiah expressed his greatest fear.

“But I am afraid to surrender,” the king said, “for the Babylonians may hand me over to the Judeans who have defected to them. And who knows what they will do to me!” – Jeremiah 38:19

He feared his own people more than he did the king of Babylon. He was afraid that those citizens of Jerusalem and Judah who had already surrendered to the Babylonians would hold him personally responsible for the fall of their nation. They would pour our their frustration and anger on him for the devastating state of affairs in Judah. And the thought of what they would do to him petrified Zedekiah. So, Jeremiah assured him that all would be well, if he would just do what God commanded and surrender to the Babylonians. God would protect him. Yes, he would lose his crown and his kingdom. But he would keep his life. All he had to do was obey God. The very same message Jeremiah had delivered to the common people of Jerusalem applied to the highest man in the land as well. No special favors. No special treatment. Just surrender. Simply submit to God’s will.

Obedience brings blessing. That doesn’t mean the blessing is always in the form of deliverance from life’s problems or release from the consequences of our sinful actions. God was offering the choice between life and death. That was the message He had delivered to the king and the people before:

“Tell all the people, ‘This is what the Lord says: Take your choice of life or death! Everyone who stays in Jerusalem will die from war, famine, or disease, but those who go out and surrender to the Babylonians will live. Their reward will be life” – Jeremiah 21:8-9 NLT

Obedience would bring life. Yes, it would also entail captivity in Babylon, but that captivity would be marked by God’s protection because it would be within His will. But to choose to reject God’s will would result in death. All Zedekiah had to do was obey God and submit to His will. Which brings us back to Ebed-Melech, the Ethiopian. This man was a foreigner, a non-Jew, but he served in the court of the king. And according to the passage, he showed more faith than any of the other court officials or even the king himself. And in the very next chapter, God has Jeremiah give this man, whose name is never mentioned again in Scripture, a personal message of assurance.

Now the Lord had spoken to Jeremiah while he was still confined in the courtyard of the guardhouse, “Go and tell Ebed-Melech the Ethiopian, ‘The Lord God of Israel who rules over all says, “I will carry out against this city what I promised. It will mean disaster and not good fortune for it. When that disaster happens, you will be there to see it. But I will rescue you when it happens. I, the Lord, affirm it! You will not be handed over to those whom you fear. I will certainly save you. You will not fall victim to violence. You will escape with your life because you trust in me. I, the Lord, affirm it!”’” – Jeremiah 39:15-18 NLT

Ebed-Melech would see the fall of Jerusalem. He would be an eye-witness observer of all that God had predicted. But rather than dying because he remained in the city – against God’s expressed will, Ebed-Melech would be spared. God would rescue him. God would protect him. While everyone else in the city died at the edge of the sword, Ebed-Melech would escape with his life. All because he had placed his trust in God. How? By speaking up for the prophet of God. In essence, Ebed-Melech had protected the truth of God by rescuing the prophet of God. He had taken a great risk by going against the wishes of his fellow officials. He had chosen to swim upstream, against the cultural current, and speak up for the God. And his faith was going to be rewarded.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson≠≠

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